8 Rules, 7 Days as a Buddhist Nun

1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

…Easier said than done when you’re in the middle of a swampy area outside of Bangkok. Mosquitoes seem to be more aggressive around Wat Prayong International Meditation Center, as if they know that the monks and Westerners living there have to morally abstain from swatting them dead.

2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

A.k.a. “thou shalt not steal”, but in a broader sense: Down to a cube of sugar for your tea, by following this precept you commit to asking permission for everything. Though this felt like going back to elementary school, the lesson was a good reminder of two things. 1) Life is slower when you have to wait for permission to have things you want. 2) You’re more grateful when you get what you want after waiting for it. 3) Within reason, I still prefer taking what I want and dealing with any consequences afterward.

3. I undertake the precept to refrain from any erotic behavior.

Surround yourself with spiritually-focused people, live alone in a hut, meditate for at least 4 hours a day and you’ll find that any carnal urges you may typically have in “normal” life will have suddenly disappeared. It’s just not the right atmosphere…though perhaps the fact that orange isn’t the sexiest color helped with the successful implementation of this precept, ahem.

4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

I took this to mean “no swearing, gossiping, or uttering any otherwise negative commentary”. Admittedly, the occasional expletive slipped out — mostly in conjunction with a bite of particularly spicy food — but really, once you’re conscious of it, it’s fairly easy to avoid cursing and/or complaining. (Added benefit: heightens awareness of Westerners’ tendency to complain about everything, even when nothing is seriously wrong).

5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating liquors and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Easy as pie, when you’re living on temple grounds and chillaxing with monks in your spare time. Not like you’re about to take a walk down to the corner store and pick up a handle of vodka for a party in the temple — again, it just wouldn’t fit. One interesting note: monks are allowed to smoke cigarettes, which though peculiar-looking, does comply with the part about drugs “leading to carelessness”.

6. I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at wrong times.

Here’s where it gets interesting. For 20 hours each day, I did not consume any solid food. It was my first time fasting (besides a one-day trial run a few months ago), and it was fantastic.

Eating at the “right time” means that you are allowed to eat once in the morning (typically at 8:00 a.m. after the monks had finished eating their fill) and once more around 11 (again after the monks, who took their portions in their alms bowls and ate elsewhere). That’s it. No bite of solid food is allowed to pass your lips after the clock strikes 12:00. What is allowed is anything liquid — juice, tea, coffee, soy milk, fresh coconut water, etc.

What makes it easier is that it’s so bloody hot and humid that you really only feel like over-hydrating yourself anyway. Besides, when your daily schedule consists of the following (below), the energy you expend isn’t enough to make you ravenous. I kept “active” by doing yoga twice a day and doing some basic dance stretches in many of the free periods.

Daily Schedule:

4.00h The bell rings
4.30h Morning chanting with the monks and meditation.
6.00h to 7.30h Working meditation (sweeping and keeping the area clean…)
7.30h Breakfast and washing your dishes after meal
After breakfast practice walking and sitting meditation on your own
11.00h mindfully taking the main meal
Rest
14.00h – 15.00h Meditation with the monks at the hall
15.00h – 16.00h Practice on your own
17.00h – 18.00h Evening chanting with the monks at the hall
20.00h – 21.00h Chanting and meditation with the monks at the hall
Rest

That being said, when we could eat, we ate really, really well. All the food is provided by community donations, collected by the monks on their morning alms rounds. It was very strange eating some of the food for breakfast (especially because your stomach wonders why after 20 hours of starving it, you suddenly are putting a smorgasbord of Thai food into it).

The fasting did help the meditation for the simple fact that it’s easier to concentrate when your body isn’t focusing on digestion. After a point, there is no feeling of hunger and you can relax into focusing your mind.

7. I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to shows, wearing garlands, and beautifying myself with perfumes and cosmetics.

I underestimated how blegh following this precept would make me feel. No, it’s not like I had to get my fix of garland-wearing (this is modernized to mean jewelry of any sort), but as a dancer, being a good Buddhist nun was extremely difficult. No music for 7 days?! Where is my internal rhythm!?! Chanting with the monks was one thing to lose yourself in, but it was no substitute for a body-rocking house beat or my beloved salsa. Let’s just say it was a practical Buddhism lesson in non-attachment to things one loves…

8. I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

If you’ve ever been camping or Couchsurfing, this last precept should be a breeze. Take a thin mat, put it on the floor and sleep on it. Voilà, you’re following the eighth precept.

9. Ok, there’s no 9th precept…

Within seven days, the grand total of the amount of time I was able to keep my mind completely thought-free was about 3 seconds. That’s it. Even after four hours or more of daily meditation, my ability to stop thinking just didn’t seem to get any better. What did improve, however, was the speed with which I was able to focus and center my awareness and calm my body. Long conversations with a few English-speaking monks enlightened me to the fact that they too are “just people”; many become ordained and practice for a few months during the rainy season before resuming their normal lives. The orange robes separated us only to the extent that I couldn’t hug them to express my gratitude for their teachings, otherwise the monks were completely approachable, even enthusiastic about the Westerners visiting to learn or practice Thai Buddhism and meditation.

I could easily write another 1,000 words about my week as a Buddhist nun, but it would quickly turn into a diary entry of my innermost personal developments. To keep these philosophical treasures inside of myself for a while longer (I’m mulling over them…letting them marinate…), I’ll stop here. Sharing such an experience in a single blog post is a Sisyphean task, so I’ll let the lessons I learned in Thailand and Cambodia influence my life in Frankfurt and get back to you on the results…

My Asian Mom

I squeezed past a middle-aged woman, making my way to my seat on my flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. Som toh, Khmer for “sorry” or “excuse me”, I said, and she quickly informed me that she was Thai and not, in fact Cambodian.

Damn. Strike one for still not being able to tell the two apart.

Strike two came when she told me that in fact, she was an American citizen now and not even Thai anymore.

Lucky for me, there was no strike three. By the end of the hour-long plane ride, she had invited me to stay with her in the hotel room she had booked — free of charge. Mind you, this woman could have been my mother; for all intents and purposes over the next three days, she was.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m fairly Caucasian. I’ve never had an Asian mother (go figure), nor are any of my relatives from “The East”, unless we’re talking east coast USA. I had no idea what to expect from this small, fierce woman who had decided it was her personal mission to welcome me to Bangkok.

Through Ubon (for that was the name of my adoptive mother) I quickly learned the hierarchical state of things in Thailand. She would give stern orders to waiters and taxi drivers who scurried to carry out her every demand. Her 5-foot frame somehow commanded an astounding amount of respect from anyone behind a counter. And for some unfathomable reason, everyone in the tourism/hotel/service industry seemed to think she was actually my mother, despite the (obvious) discrepancies in appearance.

(Not the Emerald Buddha)

That’s not to say that I didn’t do my usual gingery thing and go wandering off on my own. I highly recommend the Grand Palace and its Emerald Buddha (which is disappointingly made of jade and not emerald). The optical assault of colors, patterns, mirrors, and the tinkling of bells made for a surreal atmosphere that almost made up for the fact that the palace grounds were overrun with large groups of Russian tourists. A 5-hour afternoon bike and boat excursion with Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours was also well worth the short flirtation with death by hellish traffic before reaching quieter, lush suburbs of Bangkok.

Solo-Ginger day was followed by a mother-daughter day of intense shopping in the city — where you can buy literally everything and that in 50 different colors, styles, shapes, with googly eyes or polka dots — you name it, Bangkok has it. I escaped without a huge dent in my wallet, but learned an uncomfortable bit of cultural information. You see, whether in a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant, the Thai employees gave me the distinct feeling that they were serving us. Not just waiting on us or helping us, but serving, as in “thou art higher than I on the social ladder, oh noble one”.

I have no problem accepting generosity from warmhearted givers, or even being spoiled by people who care about me (or in Ubon’s case, by a complete stranger). It was, however, unsettling to be treated as if I were somehow better than they were. After consulting my Asian mom about this cultural difference, I realized Ubon was used to it. It was simply a question of money, again the issue of ‘have’ vs. ‘have-not’.

The discomfort was temporary, however, as I was looking forward to the tranquil atmosphere of Wat Prayong…the temple where I spent a week as a Buddhist nun. Keep an eye out for the next post on meditation, monks and “My Asian Dad”, for yes,  I managed to be adopted again…